Do People Really Get To Know New People at Networking Events?

Many years ago, when I first started my law/CPA practice, one of the ways I marketed my services was to sell literally door-to-door. I’d stop by a business location and ask to talk to the owner. I never get tired of hearing about all the different ways people think of to make money, and I always enjoyed hearing about how each business was created. I found that people loved talking about their businesses, so it all worked out well. I had a great time doing door-to-door selling, and my prospects had enjoyable conversations. I even picked up a few clients, some of whom are still using my services all these years later.

Another sales tactic I tried was attending “networking” events. I went to a few that were structured events, such as lunches where you’d move from place to place for each course and have somewhat in-depth conversations with random people. I got a couple of clients that way but, all in all, I didn’t find it worth while. The unstructured cocktail party type of networking event was even worse.  My experiences usally went like this: I’d wander around having meaningless conversations with people, gain a collection of business cards that were meaningless afterwards, and either leave, or end up with another lawyer or CPA who didn’t need my services.

Turns out that my experiences with networking events may not have been unusual. Last month, Wired’s Frontal Cortex Blog had an article by Jonah Lehrer, Opposites Don’t Attract (And That’s Bad News). Lehrer describes a 2007 Columbia University study by two psychologists, who hosted a networking event (which they called a “mixer”) and tracked each attendee’s encounters via electronic name tags. They found that, while the attendees did meet a few new people at the event, they tended to engage in long conversations only with people they already knew.

Even more interesting is a study first published last year by Angela J. Bahns, Kate M. Pickett and Christian S. Crandal. They tracked friendships among university students, and found that students at a large school, whose student population included students with diverse backgrounds, tended to choose friends whose backgrounds and opinions were very much like their own. Students at smaller universities were more likely to get to know people unlike themselves, presumably because there were fewer potential friends to choose from.

Lehrer did not discuss online social networks, but the results of the Bahn et al study would lead one to expect that there would be even greater similarities within online groups than within the groups of students at a large university. A 2009 study, Homophily, Cultural Drift, and the Co-Evolution of Cultural Groups, bears this out (homophily is the principal that like attracts like — that is to say, the opposite of the principal that opposites attract.).

These studies are not surprising. It seems quite natural for people to want to hang out with others who share many of their opinions, whose childhoods were similar to their own, who make about the same amount of money, who follow the same sports.  On the other hand, you can learn a lot more from people who are different from you. Also, people who are different from you, who are in different lines of work, are more likely to need your products or services than people just like you.

So is it worth going to networking events if you make a real effort to engage in extended conversations with people who are different from you?  Or more accurately, with groups of  people who are similar to each other but different from you, since people at networking events hang out with people like themselves.  I don’t think it would work. For example, if I go to a networking event and try to hang out with a group of long-haul truck drivers, I’m going to have a difficult time breaking into the conversation. It’s probably going to make them feel uncomfortable having someone there who is not one of them.

Networking events must work for some people, or there wouldn’t be as many networking events as there are. My guess is that they work best for the people who organize them. When you work together with a small group of people to organize an event, you have a situation more like the small universities in the Bhan study — you and your fellow organizers have time to really talk and get to know one another. That’s the lesson I’m taking away from all these studies and my own experiences — don’t attend networking events unless you’re one of the organizers.